This important first edition Portuguese sea chart embraces the mouth of the Limpopo River, long one of the main transportation corridors into the heart of Southern Africa. Rising along what is today the Botswana-South African border, the 1,750-km-long river forms much of the Zimbabwe-South Africa frontier before entering Mozambique, where it is navigable through its lower stretch, from its confluence with the Rio dos Elefantes (Oliphants River) to the sea.
While the lower Limpopo valley’s great economic potential was long recognized by the Portuguese colonial authorities in Mozambique, through most of the 19th century the area was a ‘no-go zone’ beyond the immediate coastal areas. The interior was controlled by theGaza Empire (which existed between 1824 and 1895), an indigenous nation that was long a powerful and clever antagonist of the Portuguese. To subdue the Gazans, Portugal launhced as series of ‘Pacification Campaigns’ (1892-97), although for quite some time decisive victory proved elusive. The Gazans even attacked the major Portuguese port of Lourenço Marques, in 1894, causing much alarm in Lisbon.
In 1893, the Portuguese navy, in conjunction with the Comissão De Cartografia, the Portuguese colonial mapping agency, dispatched a team of surveyors including João António La Roche Barbosa Martins Ludovice (1861 – 1928), Raul Correia Bettencourt Furtado (d. 1951) and Jorge Augusto Alves Dias (1870 – 1899), to scientifically survey the mouth of the Limpopo, an endeavour which had never before been attempted, in good part due the hostility of the locals. The survey was executed with an eye on the post-war period, when the Portuguese hoped to have vanquished the Gazans, so taking practical control over the lower Limpopo valley. The Portuguese authorities had ambitious plans to build a large modern port near the mouth of the river, and the develop plantations and mines in the interior.
The present chart embraces the mouth of the Limpopo River, with its treacherous ‘barra’ (sand bar), being where the Ponta Xai-Xai extends to close much of the passage and where the depth becomes shallower. Properly mapping the barra was critical, as sizable ships could only pass it during high tide, while staying well clear of the ponta. Elsewhere, the chart, with its innumerable bathymetric soundings, shows the passage towards and up the river to be quite clear. Interestingly, in the lower right corner, the chart features images of some of the equipment that the naval officers used to conduct their trigonometrical surveys.
In late 1895, the Portuguese managed to score a decisive defeat upon the Gazans (although ‘mop up’ operations would continue for another two years), opening the door to their colonization of the lower Limpopo valley. In this context, the present chart would have been vitally useful, as it held the key to allowing vessels to securely enter the river.
Not long after their victory, the Portuguese founded the port town of João Belo (renamed Xai-Xai in 1975), located just up river from its mouth, off the chart, that by the early 1900s had rapidly developed to become Mozambique’s second most important commercial harbour. This ensured that the lower Limpopo has played a critical role in Mozambique’s economic life up the present day.
A Note on Rarity
Like almost all 19th century Portuguese sea charts of overseas subjects, the present work is very rare. It would have been published in only a small print run, while the survival rate of such working charts is very low, especially as Portuguese issues tended to be printed on quite fragile paper.
We can trace only 3 institutional examples of the chart, held by the Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal; Archivo Historico Ultramarino (Portugal); and the Université Bordeaux Montaigne. Moreover, we are not aware of any other examples as having appeared on the market.
References: Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal: C.C. 1032 A.; Archivo Historico Ultramarino: PT/AHU/CARTI/064/00561; Université Bordeaux Montaigne: 335222107; OCLC; 9088065606, 9088069045, 896931850; Ana CANAS (ed.), Arquivo Histórico Ultramarino, Coleção de Cartografia Impressa (Lisbon, 2017), p. 102; Annales de Géographie, ‘Bibliographie de l’année 1894’ (1895), no. 1304, (p. 234); Société de géographie (France), Comptes rendus des séances de la Société de géographie et da la Commission centrale, Séance du 15 mars 1895 (1895), p. 124.